How To Be A Good Listener

Hearing the words spoke does not mean you've listened to the speaker.

Why hearing is not listening, most advice about conversation makes conversation boring, one silent participant isn’t as good as it seems, and Tango has many takeaways.

True listening is participating; else it’s just hearing, and perhaps not even that. It is often said that god gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason; that the ‘golden ratio’ in conversation is something like 1:3 speaking to listening, shared between parties. No no no.

First: fantastic, fruitful and most importantly, fun conversation, is about the loss of consciousness, osmosis, doing the tango with the other — all things that are disabled by intense focus on the words of the speaker in the name of ‘being a good listener’. A conversation which strictly abides by such rules becomes robotic, and eventually either a tyrant emerges or the subject matter escalates to highly specialised stuff like the weather and Trump.

If I find myself thinking about how well I’m listening to someone then likely I’m thinking more about that than what they’re actually conveying. Then I might start thinking about how weird their accent is, whether the lack of gesturing is indicative of psychopathic tendencies and if I should peg it right now, the half-inch mole at the crevice of their left nostril, and so forth. The point is that I should be engaged with the content of their sentences, not listening to their every word; I should be trying to understand what they’re trying to say without relying much on what they’re literally saying or the words they’re using and so on. This isn’t the time for neurotic metacognition; it’s the time to tango.

Secondly, in addition to the obvious problem that is a unnecessarily loquacious person is the problem of memory: I have to remember every question or uncertainty I had about all the speaker just said. My trying to constantly pin mental flags is itself a distracting activity. This is the first and winning argument in favour of interjecting.

Imagine the speaker starts his piece with a preamble which makes one or more claims which make no sense to you; and these are claims fundamental to everything he’s then about to say. Abiding the golden ratio, you don’t interrupt. The speaker then proceeds to hurl coats at you until you’re completely buried in a cotton volcano. With no hooks on which to hang them, your simple unwillingness to interrupt meant you couldn’t even shout ‘hey, stop throwing coats at me man!…’. If he were throwing plastic bags instead of coats, you’d have suffocated in your own kindness. That wouldn’t look good on your gravestone. The point is this: when a question pops to mind or you hear something said that adds too much noise, interrupt.

Not ideal in the middle of a conversation.

Thirdly, a conversation absent interruption from all parties is often symptomatic of an inability or fear to say anything controversial, disagreeable, spiky, strong, digressional — which is often reliably predictable of not much interesting stuff happening. It’s often just sheep baaing, which has its place of course, but is often not the place where leaps in policy, science, engineering, or even just mutual understanding, are made.

Fourthly, time is of the essence. Most meetings are already far too long and ineffably drab; things can move faster when interruption is allowed when conducted in good faith and for reasons of understanding.

Finally, hearing is not listening. Twiddling my thumbs and/or pulling my hair out whilst Jane makes her point about why in spite of the unquestionable disadvantages of being Britain being in the bloated EU, it’s still better that we stay in it because of the on-net benefits to the economy of looser immigration laws, does not mean I have listened. That is, just because I’ve sat in silence while she spoke does not mean she should believe I have listened or understood her. I display that through speech. The question of whether I listened is confirmed or denied by my articulation of what she said, which may or may not include the rebuttal.

Listening is proven with words, not silence.

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